“He knew perfectly well as a general truth that human life is full of contrasts…” Swann’s Way, P. 510
While plowing through Part 2, ‘Swann In Love’, I happened to reread The Great Gatsby. Thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s new movie adaptation, I’m sure many more are doing the same. And oh what interesting contrasts Swann and Gatsby make.
Both are deeply in love, yearning for a woman who seems to be utterly elusive. Gatsby frantically maximizes to attract Daisy; Swann willingly minimizes to reach Odette. From a poor background, Gatsby grabs whatever means he can to build his wealth; Swann whose niche belongs to high society, has to pretend that he is nobody special, stooping to ‘a lower social sphere’ (P. 285) to be near Odette.
That distance is more than social. Swann is willing to forsake his cultured tastes of art and music, to lay aside even his own research and writing on Vermeer (Odette: I’ve never heard of him, is he alive still? P. 279). Swann is willing to lay down his interests and privileges for a woman who is uncouth in the sophistication of high society, who has superficial views and flashy tastes, and alas, even promiscuous.
However, love transforms all deficiencies and blemishes into ethereal beauty. Here’s how Swann visualizes Odette. To him, she is like Sipporah, Jethro’s daughter, Botticelli’s fresco in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel:
Following Odette to her ‘little nucleus’ at the Verdurins, Swann downplays his association with prominent people and tries not to be so outspoken with his knowledge and opinion about art and music.
When he is alone with Odette, he has taken her values and interests:
he tried at least to ensure that she should be happy in his company, tried not to counteract those vulgar ideas, that bad taste which she displayed on every possible occasion, and which in fact he loved, as he could not help loving everything that came from her, which enchanted him even. (P. 348)
Is this measurement of incompatibility in tastes inherently snobbish? Yes, Swann (or Proust) is sensitive enough to analyze this in depth. What is ‘taste’ anyway, or the intellectual beliefs with which he has been raised from the days of his youth?
… the objects we admire have no absolute value in themselves, that the whole thing is a matter of period and class, is no more than a series of fashions, the most vulgar of which are worth just as much as those which are regarded as the most refined. (P. 350)
So, all for love of Odette, Swann is willing to give up going to the Jockey Club, lunching with the Prince of Wales, or his love of Holland, or a visit to the Versailles (‘which bored her to tears’):
And so he denied himself the pleasure of visiting those places, delighted to tell himself that it was for her sake, that he wished only to feel, to enjoy things with her. (p. 350)
Those colorful shirts Gatsby has hoarded, Odette would have loved them, just like Daisy, and his mansion too… if only Swann had resided in a more prestigious address, somewhere ‘more worthy of him’ instead of his house on the Quai d’Orleans. (P. 346)
Odette’s fondness of Swann begins to wane as Forcheville enters into the picture. She becomes even harder to get. Swann is burned with jealousy, anger and bitterness. Yet he cannot forget her. His love even grows stronger for her, despite receiving an anonymous letter defaming her. Why,
People often say that, by point out to a man the faults of his mistress, you succeed only in strengthening his attachment to her… he had begun to desire the possession — as if that were ever possible — of another person. (P. 517)
Perhaps that is a mark of love: the demand for exclusivity. This is exactly what Gatsby wants Daisy to admit, that she has never loved Tom, that she has always loved him. “Oh, you want too much,” she cried to Gatsby.
But Swann is more fortunate. He knows he must gain back Odette’s full and exclusive devotion and somehow he does. I’m glad to read in Part 3 that eventually Odette does become Mme Swann. I’d be curious to know how that comes about. (Proust’s strategy to get us go on reading the next volumes?)
Part 3 is an enjoyable and much swifter read as the narrator remembers his childhood in Paris drown in unrequited love (so far, not sure about how this unfolds later) for Swann and Odette’s daughter Gilberte. Because of his love for Gilberte, the boy is infatuated with M and Mme Swann as well. His crush on the elusive Gilberte parallels Swann’s love for Odette in their earlier days.
The last sentence in Volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, like that in The Great Gatsby, ends with a haunting remark on memory and the past:
The places we have known… were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.
There are much more to be said, but nothing can replace the actual experience of reading Proust first hand. From March to May as I plowed through Swann’s Way, there had been up’s and down’s. Numerous times long sentences entangled, yet the very next moment could be so beautiful and lucid it dissipated all frustrations. I now look forward to Volume II.
Thanks for joining me in this Read-Along. Finish or not, you’re welcome to share your thoughts. Throw your two pebbles into the pond and make some ripples. If you have written a post, do let me know so I can link it here.